Aubrey Beardsley

Kimono: Kyoto to catwalk
Tate Britain, until 25 th May

Victoria and Albert Museum, 

until 25th June

Every morning when I open up church I look across the road to Aubrey Beardsley’s Pimlico house, a building once festooned with graphic – in all senses of the word – works and where ‘Caprice’ his one known attempt at oils was hung. ‘Caprice’ has been recently cleaned and is one of the 250 works which make up Tate Britain’s show. These include original drawings plus paintings by others of Beardsley and his circle, work inspired by Beardsley’s designs (Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the covers of Procul Harum albums) and by his love of outrage (a very large member by Gerald Scarfe, decorously hidden behind a black curtain).

So much Beardsley in one place seems a little overwhelming, but the jaded æsthete can reflect how much better Beardsley was than his imitators, and the religiously-minded can be comforted that like that other great decadent, J.K. Huysmans, Beardsley returned to the Catholic faith, even requesting that his illustrations for ‘Lysistrata’ and Juvenal’s Sixth Satire be destroyed. They weren’t, and the V and A’s collection of them is on show at Tate with a trigger warning.

Beardsley himself, beautifully dressed, dedicated to self-promotion and to exploring gender fluidity, much influenced by Japanese prints (their eroticism and their use of large areas of colour and flattened outlines), collaborator with Oscar Wilde in the publication of ‘Salomé’ and Henry Harland in the publication of ‘The Yellow Book,’ didn’t like to be called decadent. His desire to shock – the large male members and the frank pictures of female desire – existed alongside artistic conversations with Attic vases, Rococo prints, Burne-Jones, de Lautrec and Whistler. His facility and technique are extraordinary in the hairline works – above all ‘Salomé’(his best work) – and the later stippling (‘The Rape of the Lock’). 

Beardsley’s designs are instantly recognisable with swirls and patterns set against expanses of black and white (his use of colour was less effective). And usually there’s some naughty detail crept in – the works of de Sade or some design which needs a second look. But Rembrandt was capable of something similar, as in his great print of the ‘The three trees,’and Beardsley is sophisticated compared to Picasso’s obsession with male parts.

And yet there is a problem. Beardsley was an illustrator of genius but it’s sometimes hard to get through the finely worked surface. He worked very hard. He adored his sister Mabel, shown here in an iconic picture, a characterful if limited actress. His portrayal of the female body is frank but not prurient or misogynistic. He had a feeling for such fellow sufferers from T.B. as Chopin and Weber. If only he had lived longer we might have understood him better. But we can guess that Beardsley would have enjoyed the V and A’s kimono exhibition. Not only does it show the native origins of the Japonisme which Beardsley profited from, the fine craftsmanship is equivalent to his own penmanship, the eye to the commercial main chance on a par with his seizing of the opportunities of high quality mass printing, and the exuberance and originality match his own play with conventions.

The hundred items in this show date from 1750 to the present. They show both the craft of kimono making and the evolution of the kimono both within Japan and in overseas markets. The curators are sternly critical of the Lyons Teahouse/Mikado strain of Western cultural appropriation, in which every attempt was made to be ‘authentic.’ They celebrate the modern Western borrowing of the kimono by Freddie Mercury, Björk and the Star Wars epics. In fact Western designs by Lanvin and Fortuny derived from the kimono are the equal to the Japanese, though the dress of Emilie Flöge, friend of Klimt, is a tad voluminous

More to the point, amongst such curios as a boy’s kimono with the Imperial battle fleet on it and a grown up’s kimono which celebrates the electrification of Japan, there are a kimonos and kimono variants which just make the viewer happy, and raised for a colleague and myself the question, how could these be turned into chasubles? The designs of Yamawaki Toshiko and Rei Kawakubo are standout.

  Owen Higgs


Austin Farrer

Oxford Warden, Scholar, Preacher

Ed. Markus Bockmuehl, Stephen
Platten, Nevsky Everett

SCM Press £19.99 ISBN:9780334058595

There is a story that at an Oxford college dinner a high table guest launched into a slashing attack on Christian believers, and in particular the clergy who were, he said, intellectually beneath contempt. When the tirade paused, the Head of House, himself no Christian, observed, ‘the finest mind in Oxford at present belongs to the Warden of Keble College, the Revd Dr Austin Farrer.’ Many in that University would have agreed.

Farrer died in 1968, yet his quiet, incisive voice has been heard through all the academic and ecclesiastical upheavals since then, and he is now commanding renewed attention. Good quality lasts, and Farrer’s mind and work were of exceptionally fine quality. He has been called ‘by common consent, one of the most remarkable men of his generation.’

Farrer’s influence has also proved durable because he was something of a misfit, and therefore not confined to his own environment. His philosophical ability was fully acknowledged by his peers, yet he belonged to no specific school. All the elements which contributed to his thinking were absorbed into a personal outlook, which meant that his academic books were notable for lacking the customary scholarly clutter of footnotes and bibliographies. He stood aloof from the theological fads convulsing the Church in the nineteen-sixties. He was involved with critical study of the New Testament at a particularly arid time when scholars were suffering from a bad attack of Bultmann, with unpleasant secondary symptoms such as form criticism. He refused to succumb to the contagion.

In each of these areas Farrer’s contributions were original and distinctive. His frequently witty tone sometimes enabled adverse critics to suggest that he was not wholly serious, but they could not have been more wrong. His purpose was to defend orthodox Christian faith with every weapon he had, and to expose the intellectual and spiritual inadequacy of attacks made upon it, not least by voices within the Church. He brought to this task a rigorous mind, coupled with the sensibility of a poet and the compassionate understanding of a pastor.

The present book brings together lectures delivered at a day conference in Keble College in 2019, and begins with an account of Farrer’s time as Warden there. Anyone acquainted with the politics and pettiness which can characterize Oxbridge colleges will understand the difficulties he faced, not least because he was a priest.  But he was no ivory tower theorizer, and dealt well with many of the developments forced upon Keble by changing university circumstances. A merit of this essay is to prevent any tendency toward hagiography among Farrer’s admirers. He had weaknesses, but some of those who knew him were prepared to acknowledge a saintly quality about him.

Farrer’s exercises in New Testament studies evoked splutters of indignation from scholars when he questioned received opinion, and not all of his notions have survived later scrutiny. However, the essay on Farrer and Mark’s gospel reminds us of his revolutionary proposal for jettisoning the hypothetical NT document Q, an argument frequently dismissed at the time, but which now has a substantial number of academic adherents. Another essay makes the important point that ‘it is the Bible that provides the imaginative forms that the Christ-event brings to life. This claim guides Farrer’s entire Biblical criticism.’

Farrer’s philosophical theology is approached through a reflection on his theory of evil. He made a significant contribution to thinking on that topic, though one with some weaknesses, like all such hypotheses. His insistence on the importance of Eschatology to this issue was particularly welcome at a time when it was often being downplayed in theological circles.

The use of imagination, myth and metaphor in Christian theology is the theme behind a discussion of Farrer’s links with C. S. Lewis. Farrer was rightly appreciative of Lewis’s skills in Christian apologetics, though he had reservations about Lewis’s understanding of images. Farrer points to the place of imagination in enabling Christians to offer an understanding of God’s presence and work in the world which balances explanations offered by the sciences. This is a rich area for exploration.

Lastly, there is consideration of Farrer’s preaching, the part of his legacy which remains best known through the publication of his sermons. In his preaching, Farrer’s varied gifts united to powerful effect. The late Fr Donald Allchin told me that hearing Farrer preach gave him a sense of what it was like for a past generation to hear Newman, though this comparison should not be pushed too far. Farrer had no liking for Roman Catholicism, and rather than being a disciple of the Tractarians he stood in the great High Church tradition reaching back to the Caroline Divines. He was unquestionably Catholic, but also (as befitted a son of the Baptist manse) Reformed. His preaching was doctrinal yet practical, and he did not spare his audience the challenges of Christian discipleship.

These excellent essays would themselves justify buying this book, but there is a bonus in the shape of four previously unpublished lectures delivered by Farrer in America in 1966. Some of the themes referred to above are touched on in the lectures, and it is instructive to watch Farrer reviewing religious trends of the time courteously, but with devastating effect. ‘Death of God’ theology and Situation Ethics may be history, but they have present day descendants, and the editors are right to say that he would have made short work of the now not-so-New Atheists.

Reading this book inevitably provokes comparisons between the high standard of Farrer’s work and much which is on offer now. The editors are frank about a situation where the Church of England fails to value scholar priests and offer them helpful spheres for working. (The small parishes where scholarly clergy could study and write while having their reflections rooted in pastoral reality have long been streamlined away.) The editors state that ‘a sense of panic in response to the secular has rapidly debased the Church’s idea of “mission” amid widespread gasping for the supposedly clear air of management and leadership. That “mission” has in the Church of England narrowed to the point where “relevance” becomes the primary criterion for the selection of its spiritual leaders: bishops, deans, residentiary canons. Theology, by contrast – the skilful, patient and public articulation of the love of God with the mind – seems non-essential and even counterproductive to the new currency of “mission”.’

Can it be that at last voices are being raised against the tide of trivialities promoted by the Church in the name of mission and outreach, and the demand is being heard again for serious, orthodox, challenging Christian teaching? If so, Catholic Anglicans should rise to the challenge joyfully, looking to Austin Farrer as an inspiration and help in the task ahead.

Barry A. Orford 

Conversations with Philo of Alexandria 

Simon Peter Iredale

ISBN 978-1700056962

A self-published book can be of varying quality.  However, when the topic is the well-digested fruit of a PhD thesis, the reader approaches it with high expectations.  Iredale’s Conversations with Philo of Alexandria is such a book, with a happily conversational tone.  The text itself is under 100 pages, with discursive footnotes and a select bibliography for further reading.  One minor presentational weakness is that the chapters do not begin on fresh pages, but run consecutively like an e-book.

Iredale dips into Philo’s original thought, while situating Philo in his own context, and as ancestor to subsequent developments in Christian theology.  What makes Philo distinctive is that he is a Jewish philosopher who took his own Scriptures seriously, while learning as much as he could from both them and contemporary philosophy.  He saw everything being created according to a divine purpose (p.27), and studied it as a form of worship (p.20). Philo’s engagement with the Scriptures as the ultimate source of truth – even if its interpretation may be beyond human understanding – is particularly pleasing, as is his enquiring mind.  Of the three men who appeared to Abraham, Philo sees an “underlying single object … one the reality, the other two shadows beamed from it” (p.40), from which he infers the Logos escorted by the creative and kingly powers of the Divine.

For Ordinands-in-training, such as your reviewer, the temptation may arise to limit such speculation, or to set up a tense suspicion between Jewish and Gentile thought.  However, Iredale is keen to point out that Philo cheerfully inhabited both worlds, and the book goes some way to show the great influence that Philo exerted on later Christian thought even by his manner of approaching the Scriptures, speculatively but faithfully (p.75).  In the example above, we see a thoughtful approach by an observant Jew to the mystery of the Triune God, informing later Patristic discourse.

A weaker aspect to this book occasionally emerges, at odds with the flow of the argument.  Iredale wishes to advance the modern genderless pronoun, which leads him at various points into matters of speculation. For instance, on the genderlessness of the resurrected Christ (p.33 and fn.58), or on the supposed substitution by theologians of only-begotten Son as opposed to ‘made’ or ‘created’ – which Iredale thinks ‘problematic’ (p.34 fn.59), even though the term monogenē is strictly Johannine in usage (and the NRSV’s tepid ‘only’ is scarcely adequate in translation).  The term ‘begotten’ naturally bespeaks the Fatherhood of God, and however mysterious (rather than ‘problematic’) this may seem, Iredale would probably better exemplify Philo’s own method by rooting speculation more firmly in the texts of Scripture. Unfortunately, these moments (including in pp.83-84), come across as digressions which do not fit with the overall argument. That is a pity, and means the passages read like insertions into an extant text, somewhat disengaged from Philo’s thought – detracting, ultimately, from the book’s real didactic strength.

Tristan Meares

The Place of the Parish:

Imagining Mission in Our Neighbourhood

Martin Robinson 

SCM 2020 £19.99 

ISBN 978-0-334-05825-0 160pp

‘Possibly the most prophetic statement that our hyper-individualistic culture needs is the local reality of communities acting out what it means to love one another, to embrace the needs of the world, to enact truth – all in the context of the Eucharist. This simple act of memory connects the salvific act of Christ upon the cross with a redeeming present and the ultimate community of a new heaven and a new earth’. So concludes Church growth strategist Martin Robinson’s new book, over whose lifetime and ministry the parish and indeed the Eucharist have seemingly gone and come back again as prime movers in UK mission theory. 

This analysis of mission practice in the west chronicles the generation that looked to church planting, Fresh Expressions and Warren’s ‘Mission-shaped church’ ending with an affirmation of ‘The Place of the Parish’. That place, though fragile, retains ‘touch points for the memories of a given community… buildings… of… spiritual significance help(ing) to anchor and shape the collective memories of given community. They act as the connecting point between past and present, between heaven and earth, between that which has been and that which might be’.

I read this book as former mission adviser and parish priest noting how things have moved on, in some ways back, to affirm parish ministry, stretched as that now is, from times when the parish was in question as merely ‘attractional church’. Better, they almost used to say, to get out and engage with networks from bikers to pensioners. This timely reflection affirms how parish churches at their best are both engaging and attractional. What engagement they can make with their community remains haunted by Newbigin’s question of 1984: ‘Can the West be converted?’. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin handed on this question from an Indonesian Christian who knew the western world and saw how Christians there were influenced ‘by an Enlightenment culture that assumes that man [sic] is the primary agent and God is somehow in the background’.

Recovering God’s primacy, a sense of his supernatural leading has been one of the fruits of the mid 20th century Charismatic Movement, which helped build the enthusiasm for evangelisation and church growth chronicled in this book. Parallel to this came parish ministry insight from writers like Ann Morisy, seeing outgoing church work as a means of deepening discipleship: ‘In a society such as ours where scepticism is the norm, it may be appropriate to begin by promoting discipleship rather than belief. Through… discipleship which speaks of venturesome love, it is likely that people will encounter experiences that are relevant to their half-formed faith; more than this, one of the great themes of the Gospel can come alive… encouraging people to do business with God and to contribute to God’s purposes for humankind’.

‘The Place of the Parish’ attends to our understanding of place as much as parish, especially the tension between those seeing themselves based ‘anywhere’ and those viewing themselves as definitely ‘somewhere’ raised in the Brexit debate. Martin Robinson’s lines on facilitating church growth are valuable – recovering God’s agency, expectant worship, collaborative leadership etc. As the book’s argument concludes towards affirming parish ministry and the sacramental, teaching from Bonhoeffer on community life appears with his warning against charismatics: ‘God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious’. The context of Nazi Germany may not be irrelevant but, as Robinson notes, many ‘efforts at individual self-actualisation have little to do with community formation’. Church growth is helped by prophets, but they and their churches need humility alongside confidence in God to make the most of his supernatural gifts.

With insight on church vitalisation, mainly from Evangelical tradition, this book is valuable not least for a conclusion that is affirmative of eucharistic worship in parishes, exercised imaginatively and with an expectation upon God to be at work both at the altar and in the community.

John Twisleton 

Christ Unabridged:

Knowing and Loving the Son of Man

G Westhaver and R Vince, Eds.

SCM Press, 2020


This book is the published proceedings of the second Pusey House Theological conference, Totus Christus: Knowing and Loving the Son of Man. It took place at Pusey House Oxford from the 9-11th July 2018. The proceedings of the first conference, which was focussed on the Trinity, we previously reviewed in this publication (No. 296, May 2018). Your reviewer attended both conferences.

The approach taken with this second volume in the series is very similar to the successful formula of the first: a thematic arrangement of the papers, bringing structure to the different angles explored at the conference itself. However, there are two significant innovations which really add value to this book.

First, a full introductory chapter is included, instead of a brief preface. The extra work that has gone into this expansion of the prefatory material really pays off, because it gives the reader a more thorough overview of what lies within. In a book like this, which is unlikely to be read cover to cover, that helps to decide on which paper or section to focus your attention.

What then transforms this book from simply a record of the papers delivered into something rather more reflective is the decision to include selections from Malcom Guite’s poetry. Each part, which is a collection of papers around the same theme, begins with one of his compositions. This device evokes effectively the prayerful and receptive atmosphere in which the conference itself took place, interspersed as it was with the public worship of the church. 

The indices are welcome and thoughtfully compiled, though I am afraid I always prefer footnotes on each page as they occur, in order to avoid all that flicking back and forth. Another small gripe is the title: the conference was Totus Christus, here Christ Unabridged. An unnecessary dilution by (I suspect) the publishing house for a volume which is clearly not intended for the average Sunday book stall at the back of church.

This volume is ecumenical in scope and orthodox in spirit. Any reader who wants to consider the person and work of Jesus Christ freed from the bonds of one particular theological perspective or specialisation will find it invaluable. Indeed, it invites us to rise above the taxonomy of theologies and listen for ‘the voice of the Word’ which is, as Rowan Williams reminds us in his concluding address, ‘something more than just the words we utter.’ 

Guy Willis

The author of this review is the Registrar of Pusey House.

The third biannual Pusey House Theological Conference, Descent of the Dove: Knowing and Loving in Spirit and Truth, will take place from Monday, 6 July to Wednesday, 8 July 2020.