GOD AND GRACE OF BODY
Sacrament in Ordinary
OUP, 445pp, hbk 978 0 19 923182 9, £30
Had the word eclectic not existed, it would have been necessary to invent it, in order to describe the mind of David Brown. Few scholars can have his breadth of knowledge and interest, and be able to deploy it with such dexterity. To use a more seasonal image: this is a Fortnum & Mason Christmas hamper of a book, packed with treats and goodies. The analogy is not a misleading one, for it contains a rich and tasty chapter on ‘Food and Drink’. Read it, and you will learn how to follow some of the recipes found in the oldest surviving papal cookbook, that of Pope Martin V, who not only reunited the Western Church after the Great Schism, but knew that the secret of a good omelette lies in squeezing in the juice of plenty of fresh oranges. You will discover why a walnut tree dominates Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (now in London’s National Gallery), and also that, among the slave communities of the West Indies, it was customary to sprinkle gin on the deceased prior to burial, a practice yet to find its way, I think, into even the most advanced of Anglo-Catholic shrines.
If dance, rather than comestibles, is your thing, then you will be pleased to learn more about the ecstatic gyrations of the worshippers of the Hindu god Shiva, as described by the ninth-century poet Manikkavacakar, or to reflect, with the author, on how his daily reading of the Scriptures informed the work of the greatest of all English choreographers, Sir Frederick Ashton om. What about pop and rock? You will be intrigued by Brown’s comments on the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, and his bold analysis of both the music and stage presentation of Led Zeppelin (even now thrilling a new audience with their reunion charity gig): much more than cock rock’, Brown notes that the actions of guitarist Jimmy Page ‘have been compared to the priest’s sprinkling of the faithful with holy water at a traditional Mass.’
All of this – and much more – is evidence for what we might call Brown’s general theory of everything’: that God is not simply to be restricted to the world of the formally ‘religious’, nor even to prayer, morals and politics, but is to be found everywhere, in every detail of creation and every aspect of human experience. Particularly (as the first part emphasizes), God is to be encountered through human bodies: beautiful bodies, sexual and sexy bodies, suffering and decaying bodies. Brown wants us to be attentive everywhere to signs of grace, by which we are to understand not merely a ‘technical term in Christian theology’, but the sense of divine gift, gift which always goes beyond what is merely adequate, and is habitually generous and even excessive. As Bono puts it: ‘Grace, it’s the name for a girl / It’s also a thought that changed the world… / Grace, she carries a world on her hips… / No twirls or skips between her fingertips… / Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.’
Part III of the book is (as well as being the shortest) in many ways the most intriguing. Brown challenges liturgists (and the whole Church) to become ever more aware of the need to disclose something of the ‘material’ participation of the worshipper – specifically the worshipper at the Eucharist, the consumer of the sacred elements – in the continuing humanity of Christ, risen and ascended, but still (because human) bodily, still possessive of a physical existence. Brown argues that Aquinas, Luther and Calvin shared a belief (while differing hugely in their explanations of that belief) in our participation, via the Eucharist, in the full humanity, and therefore the physical, as well as sacramental, body of Christ. But that sense has now been lost by most Christians across the denominations, to be replaced by a vague sense that Christ is ‘everywhere’ and therefore present to us in worship. This is turn has resulted in a catastrophic collapse in our ability to be sensitive and alert to the points of contact between the (non-material) heavenly realms, and the material world of creation and human experience. We have lost the art, and the wisdom, of discerning (as Brown’s subtitle has it) ‘a sacrament in ordinary’.
I compared this book to a Christmas hamper, and so it is: rich and bursting with good things. It must also be said that, consumed at one sitting, it would be more than a little indigestible. There is so much information, so many cultural, historical and theological points of reference, that the result can be overwhelming. An editor’s blue pencil would not have gone amiss here and there. Instead, perhaps, think of a box of truffles: take one (chapter) at a time, and make the box last; or, if you prefer, God and Grace of Body is vintage Madeira to be savoured, not a cheap Cotes du Rhone for glugging down.
LIVING THE MAGNIFICAT
Affirming Catholicism in a Broken World
Edited by Mark D. Chapman
Mowbray, 160pp, pbk 978 1906286 06 4, £12.99
Like many such collections, the lectures and sermons in this book are variable in quality and interest; some will appeal more than others. They were originally delivered at a conference of the group Affirming Catholicism (‘Inspiration and hope in the Anglican Communion’, so they claim) in September 2006. They take as their central theme the Magnificat of Our Lady. In his introduction, Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, sets out the approach of all the contributors when he writes that Mary represents the humble and lowly people of Israel. She is the representative figure of the underclass, the losers and the victims of society. The Song of Mary is a radical challenge to worldly values and one which seeks to turn the old order, the ancient regime, upside down and engenders something like a state of permanent revolution.
He is not unaware of the enduring paradox that all this radical world-turning is posited from his deanery, from academic institutions, from bishops’ houses, if not palaces. It is the Magnificat rendered by something akin to old-time Fabian socialists. Most of them have about them the trappings of ecclesiastical power and authority: just the sort of people to be ripe for overthrowing. Perhaps it is this that gives some of the contributions a feeling of paternalism and smug self-satisfaction.
The contributions stand within an identifiable Catholic tradition on which all of us could agree. The underlying truth is that there is a direct relationship between the Incarnation, understood through the role of Mary, and the transformation of the world. And with regard to our relationship with the world, there is much in this book on which all Catholics could agree. Disengagement from the world is not an option for those who believe in the Incarnation of God in Christ. The question lies in the nature of the engagement and the point at which engagement with the world becomes surrender to the ways of the world.
James Alison writes about the recreation of the world and Mary’s role by means of an
extended, clever, but not entirely convincing analogy with the music and operas of Rossini. It is something of a jeu d’esprit, but does not have the charm and the wit of La Cenerentola, although it has a few verbal pyrotechnics. Linda Hogan tackles globalization; Mongezi Guma brings a perspective from South Africa and the attempt to bring about the reconciliation of estranged people and to give a voice to the voiceless. It is not always easy to translate the inchoate cries of pain and anger into the articulation of honest discourse. There are sermons from Sister Margaret Magdalen csmv on the Christian ethic of hospitality and acceptance; from Joseph Cassidy of St Chad’s College, Durham, the venue for the Conference, who preaches on the nature of Christian moral universalism and ethical transformation through learning from the outsider (a sermon that might have been better as a lecture); and from Bishop Michael Doe, who speaks of his work as General Secretary of the USPG.
Dr Chapman’s essay is a plea for openness in the Church and in the world, and he writes with insight about that great but neglected figure, John Neville Figgis cr. This journal and its contributors, and by implication its readers and subscribers, stand accused by Dr Chapman of undue churchy introversion. There is, he maintains, little or no engagement with political, social and global issues. As a reader of ND for some time, I am not convinced that this is entirely fair or right. There are articles on issues of social significance, but if there is a preponderance of material dealing with the Church, the nature of the Church and its shape and future, it is because our engagement with the world is through the sacramentality of the Church. Amidst the disarray and schismatic fragmentation, there are such significant changes in order, doctrine, morals and ethics that so alter and undermine Catholic faith and order that the mission of the Church is fatally compromised. There does not seem to be any coming to grips with the Catholic faith as it has been received by the Church of England in Dr Chapman’s contribution, and it leaves the reader with the feeling that this pressure group is less about ‘affirming Catholicism’ than ‘affirming Anglicanism’.
Bishop Stephen Cottrell contributes an essay, only slightly marred by some windy rhetoric, in which he describes wandering around an un-named cathedral and reading a sign which said: ‘Behind this barrier is the Sanctuary – the Cathedral’s Holy of Holies.’ He was dismayed by the incongruity of the notice. Had no one noticed the words of the Magnificat sung time after time in that building: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones’? He writes, ‘we might add priests from behind altars.’ But is that not where priests should be? Am I missing something? Does not the priestly life begin and end at the altar? Does he not bring all the other work he does, tasks he undertakes, encounters he has, to the altar of God and in the offering of the Divine Victim? Is that not what being a Catholic priest is about – ‘affirming’ or otherwise?
His remarks struck with particular force because a large part of current liturgical thinking is concerned with the recovery of a sense of the sacred space, seeking to recapture some of the numinous and the transcendent in ecclesial architecture, the ordering of churches, the celebration of the liturgy and the sacramental encounters with God. Perhaps the word ‘barrier’ was not well chosen, but it seems a genuine attempt to highlight something of the sacred. However, the Bishop’s remark reveals something more deep-seated and fundamental concerning secularization.
In a new book by the philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, there is an analysis of secularization which the Bishop’s anecdote illustrates admirably. Taylor argues that secularization represents a shift in our understanding of the world and of our experience of it. It is not to be described as merely a decline in certain belief systems or the failure of institutions. He does not agree with the standard view that it is all the result of scientific progress undermining a religious explanation of the world and its ability to reveal the world as it is through scientific empiricism. For Taylor, this is secondary. Rather he sees the malaise of secularization, if such it be, inherent in the Christian religion. His argument runs that in the pre-Reformation world there was a worldly and a sacred sphere: profane and sacred, but that the Protestant reformers, like Luther and (perhaps even more so) Calvin, wanted to abolish that distinction and to supply a unifying religious principle. The result was the emasculation of the sacramental principle, the abolition of feast days, the destruction of relics, the iconoclasm of the statuary of popular piety (the most egregious example being the burning of the image of Our Lady of Walsingham), and the stripping of the altars and the priest’s mediating role between the realm of time and the realm of eternity. Scientific empiricism entered that world; it did not create it.
The effective dismantling of the sacred in life, like Bishop Cottrell’s dislike of that ‘barrier’, meant that the world of familial relationships, and of business and commerce, became invested with a moral, even quasi-religious, significance. This elevation of mercantilism to a moral imperative has distinct echoes of Richard Tawney’s classic thesis on the correlation of the rise of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. Religion, however, became displaced by a morality that did not require a religious underpinning or structure. Society could exist as self-sustaining maintained by self-interest; enlightened self-interest, no doubt, but with no need of the religious glue to society. Secular humanism was born, and Protestantism can be seen as little more than a point on a continuum leading to a secular state. Perhaps Bishop Cottrell did not appreciate that his simple anecdote had such depth of meaning and resonance. Perhaps the contributors to this book might look to this kind of analysis and consider their part in the growth (and triumph?) of the secular state and society. Where do they stand on the continuum?
Most of the drop capitals at the beginning of the chapters have gone sadly awry and are out of kilter with the text: almost a paradigm for the book.
THE MESSAGE OF ACTS IN CODEX BEZAE
Volume III: Acts 13.1-18.23
Josep Ruis-Camps & Jenny Read-Heimerdinger
T&T Clark, 414pp, hbk 978 0 56703 248 5, [£65]
When I told a colleague that this was for me the theological publishing event of the year, he suggested, as people do these days, that I should get out more. I was not quick enough to reply that what it showed me was the exact opposite, that I should stay in more. Any serious student of holy Scripture, or teacher of the word, ought to be able, with impunity, to send his or her apologies to the chairmen of any number of committee meetings, on the grounds that the time was being spent in the close, careful and demanding study of a New Testament text.
Get this clear. This is a demanding book, not for casual reading. With a proposed fifth volume (offering the full Greek and Latin texts of Bezae, with the Alexandrian Greek, with translation and accompanying notes to explain the differences) the whole set is going to set you back over £300. Taken that it will not be superseded for at least a century, it makes an excellent investment for an academic library: so persuade them.
This is study, something altogether more difficult than simply reading. I have been making my way through the volumes as part of my scriptural discipline; I think the best context would be in a study group, with others to offer support. But, and this is why it is worth reviewing in ND, it is written in a manner that makes it perfectly possible for even a hard pressed parish priest to use it.
Leave aside any of the technical bits that are beyond your present capacity. Read the texts (the Codex Bezae is in parallel columns with the mainstream Alexandrian), then work your way through the commentary. The authors are wonderfully clear, and do not rely on the reader remembering exactly what they wrote for an earlier verse. O bliss, academics who realize that lesser mortals forget what they read only a couple of days ago; and so they explain each section of text in full detail.
What do you get for all this application? You get to hear, almost as though you were there, a biblical scribe of the fifth century, telling a version of the earliest history of the Church, which is subtly different to what we read in church. A version that is certainly much more Jewish than the one we know, and which may well be earlier/ truer to the original. Even if you have no inclination to answer that complex source critical question, the excitement of its vividly different insights is immensely rewarding.
I have never been entirely fond of Paul, especially on his missionary journeys, but
the hints at his limitations which Bezae highlights, make him a much more human and agreeable figure. The fact that the great apostle of the gentiles, on arriving in a new town, invariably went first to his fellow Jews, rarely spoke with gentiles, and when he did preach to them did so rather poorly, makes him more not less sympathetic.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the way in which Bezae reveals what I had never before noticed in the main text, that as soon as the leading characters get the message’ they vanish from the story. When Peter at last understands the manner in which the Gospel is to be preached to the gentiles, he is himself liberated (that ended volume II) and is heard of no more, except for his single speech ‘in the Spirit’ at the Jerusalem Council. Barnabas, Luke’s true hero, disappears soon after the Council, leaving the rest of the book to follow Paul’s painful path to enlightenment.
This is a most unusual way of reading the New Testament; it is strikingly demanding, but amazingly exciting.
A PASSIONATE BALANCE
The Anglican Tradition Alan Bartlett
DLT, 220pp, pbk 0 232 52596 X, £9.95
Of the writing of books about Anglicanism, there can be no end. In the last three or four years, we have had Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (Edward Norman) and Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity (Duncan Dormor et al). With each of these, the clue is in the subtitle; and that each is from the Continuum stable is a tribute to the even-handedness of that particular publisher. The present Archbishop of Canterbury has given us the helpful Anglican Identities (also DLT), while
Seabury Classics (an American imprint) recently reissued The Anglican Spirit by a past occupant of the Chair of St Augustine, Michael Ramsey. And there have been more besides.
Can there be a more introspective denomination among the great churches of the world? The reason, perhaps, for the continual desire of Anglicans to examine and re-examine what it means to bear that name – and to fight with increasing bitterness for the title deeds – is that, more than any other ecclesial body, Anglicanism is a story as much as it is a church: and stories, as we know, can be told from many different perspectives. Is authentic Anglicanism Edwardian, Elizabethan or Caroline? Catholic or Protestant? Is it intrinsically English, or manifestly global? Is it fundamentally conservative, or inherently radical? Is it All Souls Langham Place, or All Saints Margaret Street? Or Holy Trinity Brompton? And if the answer is ‘all of these’, then no wonder most of the world remains entirely bewildered by the whole thing, and opts cheerfully for the Vicar of Dibley instead.
Into this maelstrom of therapeutic auto-analysis comes Alan Bartlett, Tutor in Church History, Ministry and (wait for it) Anglican Studies at Cranmer Hall. He has written a book which is…well… very Anglican. We learn about Scripture, Reason and Tradition; about Anglican modesty, generosity, and respect for history. There is a lot of good, solid stuff about Cranmer’s genius in retaining Catholic elements in his new Prayer Book, and about the fittingness of sixteenth-century English for communicating the Gospel and conveying the truth.
Bartlett writes well on Hooker and Andrewes, and (in a book chiefly intended, I suspect, for Evangelicals) gently points out the sacramentalism which lies at the heart of Anglican doctrine and Anglican spirituality. We get a good canter around terms such as adiaphora (‘a crucial concept in Anglican self-understanding’), and there are plenty of solemn invocations of General Synod and Anglican Communion reports, including both Rochester and Windsor.
The book ends with a celebration of Anglican worship (notably Choral Evensong), a litany of ‘Anglican saints’ (Cranmer, Laud, Wesley, Wilberforce, Dolling, Westcott, Josephine Butler – what bedfellows!) and a paean of praise to George Herberts ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’, a poem whose greatness remains remarkably undiminished by the frequency with which it is trotted out in anthologies of Christian verse.
Nothing in this book is untrue, or even misleading. It is a worthy, workmanlike volume, and will no doubt inform and explain in a way that is entirely helpful to those in the foothills of church history who want to know more. But it is all somewhat pedestrian, rather wan, and at times faintly smug. Very Anglican, really.
THE SACRAMENTAL LIFE
Gregory Dix and his writings
Edited by Simon Jones Canterbury,
160pp, pbk 978 185311 717 6, £16.99
I am now a paid-up FiF priest, but I began my ministry as a liberal evangelical, with little to no knowledge of liturgy (and rather less interest). When I first began to move into higher circles Dom Gregory Dix (the Anglican Benedictine and author of The Shape of the Liturgy, who died in 1952) was a name to frighten me. He came to symbolize everything I didn’t know and all my inadequacies as a second-class Anglo-Catholic. True, I could have read his great work, and bluffed my way through the arcane liturgical disputes, but I was frankly frightened it might only confirm my failings, and so for two decades I remained in my ignorance.
What a marvellous book this is. A well-edited collection of short essays and excerpts from his writings, which both instruct and entertain. A letter to his mother while on a liturgical lecture tour of France is quite delightful and full of enthusiasm. ‘The Question of Anglican Orders’ from another letter, to a layman, is clear, concise and genuinely encouraging decades later, when the problem returns with yet greater force. The essays on early Eucharists were most useful; and then there is the purple passage ‘The Command never so obeyed’ so often alluded to.
What a fine teacher he must have been. The holiness and the learning that comes from these pages, mainly on the liturgy and the religious life, is exhilarating and powerful. No wonder he is held in such high regard. Unless you know him already, open this book and enjoy.
An FiF priest
THE HOME WE BUILD TOGETHER
Recreating Society Jonathan Sacks
Continuum, 274pp, pbk 978 0 826480 70 5, £16.99
How can we recreate society? Change consumers into citizens? Get people looking forwards? Overcome selfish individualism? Grow more compassion? Gain moral depth as a national community?
These are questions asked and answered by Britain’s Chief Rabbi in nearly three hundred pages containing a vision for Britain that will surely catch the nation’s attention. Jonathan Sacks is prominent as a national faith community leader and well known through the media.
The Rabbi may be favoured by media but his ideas are not easily reduced to simple sound bites. The whole thrust of the book is an overcoming of the over simple presentation of truth which makes it a demanding yet inspiring read.
I read his book as someone concerned for more truthfulness in society and in religious bodies, including the Church of England which I serve as a mission adviser steering both evangelism and interfaith encounter. The Rabbi reads as the best sort of missionary – a pragmatist. The survival of Rabbinic Judaism is, as he says, indebted to its practical rather than idealistic approach, respecting and seeking respect for the presence of competing world views as a minority group. The trick is to be bilingual and be fluent in both the language and customs of your religion or philosophy and those of your nation. There are too many groups that are really speaking to themselves and in these Sacks would group religious fundamentalists and gay militant lobbyists.
Within Christianity in Britain there are streams of evangelism that are so otherworldly they seem indifferent to the health of society and to collaboration with other faith communities for the common good. They could well heed Rabbi Sacks as he quotes Jeremiah’s advice for exiled believers to seek the peace of the city they are exiled to since in that quest they will themselves find peace and prosperity and, I would add, effective evangelization. British Christianity has a complementary weakness in its loss of the formation and counter-cultural inspiration that has power to energize its followers to be the William Wilberforces of this age. Again Sacks himself is an example of a prophet nurtured by a traditional religion whose clear identity as a Jew does not make for any conflict with his helping recreate society, through building a new consensus of values that will serve the future of Britain.
The future of Britain depends on the harnessing of different groups with conflicting views of the good, the Chief Rabbi writes. We need to generate a forward momentum for our nation by generating a new relationship or covenant between civil society and the state, and this will take time and vision. If successful, the giftings of presently segregated cultures can be brought to serve the common good. Multicultural-ism has failed – this is his most provocative challenge – making Britain like a hotel in which segregated cultures live under one roof in self-contained rooms they pay for. The challenge is to build a home together and to encourage the different cultures to work together on this task, so building their responsibility and ownership of society as a whole. We will not get more compassion in our society from government but from the vision-bearing groups that can successfully challenge self interest.
The hardest truth-telling in this book is about what it actually means to be tolerant. The belief that I am morally right to do anything I have a legal right to do is not tolerance but moral relativism. Sacks shows up the tragic attempts at thought policing by the politically correct of those who retain a sense of objective right and wrong. To say someone has a right to do something (tolerance) is not the same as to say they are right to do it. These and other deep yet basic observations make this book a searching read.