Too often accused of being ‘never knowingly understood’, Rowan Williams has written a lucid book for lay people on the basics of Christianity. It emanates from his Holy Week talks to the people of his diocese in Canterbury Cathedral.
They were transcribed and edited – one wit suggested it was a good idea to put three extra full stops into a Rowan sentence. Like earlier books from the same context, Tokens of Trust (2007) and The Lion’s World (2012),they still have the feel of the spoken word from a holy place. They address us in our homes and lives.
Like prayer according to George Herbert, this is ‘something understood.’ His writing is eminently sensible, with light touches of humour and irony, and only hints of a vast hinterland of learning.
There are four chapters: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer. Neatly alternating sacrament and word, the heart of the Christian faith is circulated. The questions for reflection or discussion at the end of each chapter, and the notes for further reading, are enticing and challenging.
He suggests, ‘Perhaps baptism really ought to have some health warnings attached to it: “If you take this step, if you go into the depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.”’
On the Bible he states plainly, ‘This is what God wants you to hear. He wants you to hear law and poetry and history. He wants you to hear the polemic and the visions.’
We should approach the Bible with Christ-centred reading as if it were a parable of Jesus. There is a freshness which strikes us: ‘Suddenly these bizarre and exotic figures from the ancient Near East look you in the eye, and you see your own reflection.’
He points out correctives to the Bible in the Bible itself. Only a few generations after Jehu was anointed by Elisha to unleash a blood bath in Jezreel (2 Kings 9-10), Hosea (1:4) pronounces Jezreel to be a ‘name of shame in history, not triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished.’
In his chapter on the Eucharist, Rowan stress hospitality and God’s desire of us. ‘In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.’ A few pages later, he goes on to show our obligation to the person seated next to us: ‘God wants that person’s company as well as mine’.
He stresses that in his risen life, Jesus is still doing what he did before: inviting all sorts of strange people to eat with him. Thank God for this insight that conviviality and hospitality exude from Jesus now as then. The Eucharist also reminds us of honest repentance: ‘It is the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our own self-enclosure and self-absorption.’ Powerfully succinct words.
The final chapter discusses prayer. ‘That, in a nutshell, is prayer – letting Jesus pray in you.’ He draws on three early masters of prayer. Origen, a great biblical scholar, who probably died in 254 from torture and injuries sustained in prison, wrote a little book: really the first systematic treatment of prayer by a Christian. God chooses to build prayer into the working out of his purposes. Eventually we are led, in Origen’s phrase, into ‘sober drunkeness’ where we are ‘out of our mind’, removed from ordinary, selfish, anxious and defensive habits.
Gregory of Nyssa, from Asia Minor, died about 395. Rowan sums up his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer as ‘Prayer heals relations’. In forgiveness, God is boldly asked to be imitators of us, rather than the usual other way round. Intriguing.
John Cassian came to be a monk in Egypt probably from southern Russia and ended up founding a monastery in Marseilles. He wrote at the beginning of the fifth century. What struck me new about Cassian was his advice about becoming settled as we start our prayers. He was the originator of the famous formulaic plea at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer, ‘O God make speed to save us’ which responds with echoes of the words of Psalm 40:13 ‘O God make haste to help us’.
So, words we have used for centuries are illuminated, in this book, by historical acumen.
Arius: Heresy and Tradition was Rowan’s magisterial Oxford work of 1987; Being Christian is his ministerial work as he left the chair of St Augustine to be Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.
This review first appeared in The Tablet and we are grateful for permission to reproduce it here on Fulcrum
The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings is Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Ely and Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide.