Reviews – November 2015
Guide to better ministry
This is a profoundly attractive book. Ian Cowley is vocations and spirituality coordinator for the Diocese of Salisbury. Writing for those who exercise ordained ministry, Cowley stresses that we need to lead disciplined, consecrated lives to be effective instruments of God’s peace. Daily prayer is a non-negotiable personal discipline.
In a society obsessed with league tables and measurable success, many in ordained ministry either burn out or bail out. Cowley challenges this ethos, reminding the disciples of Jesus that being comes before doing, that we need to be rooted in the unconditional love of God.
Cowley calls us to find our deepest identity in Christ through silence, prayer, stillness and Bible reading. To be contemplative is to see that prayer allows us to descend with the mind into the heart and there to stand before the face of the Lord, who is ever present, all seeing within you.
According to Cowley, the contemplative minister will only focus on three areas of ministry: Prayer, pastoral care and preaching. Cowley believes that the Church neither accepts nor understands the contemplative minister because prayer and being in the Kingdom of God cannot be easily measured.
This book draws heavily on Cowley’s Anglican spirituality. Though it is principally for ordained ministers, with a bit of creative imagination, all followers of Jesus will find this book helpful. Cowley’s teaching in this book is both gentle and compelling, using personal testimony and judicious quotes.
At a time when the United Reformed Church is trying to discern its calling for the future, this little book is worth being still with. It would be all too easy to justify our existence to the world by being busy; Cowley reminds us that, as the Church, we are called to be experts in prayer, and he wonders where, along the way, we managed to move from keeping the Sabbath to the Protestant work ethic.
John Gordon is a church minister serving in the central Sussex area
Illuminating Franciscan ways
How to live “on the edge of the inside”; how to cease framing everything in a binary way and begin to see “in conscious union with the eyes of God” in the Unitive Way – these are important and recurring themes in Richard Rohr’s attempt to share with his readers one of the “most attractive, appealing and accessible of all frames and doorways to the divine – The Franciscan Way”.
Francis was very traditional and “yet entirely new in the ways of holiness”. He sought an alternative way, free of doctrine, but he did not seek to disrupt the Church. Francis did not teach an iconoclastic dismissal of traditional Christianity but looked for the “deep and enduring divine image” hidden beneath all too familiar images, words and actions. Francis trusted his own inner experience but recognised his need of the community of the Church.
As the prophets lived “on the edge of the inside of Judaism”, so Francis taught the way of living on the edge of the inside of community. This way of living requires that we see in a Unitive way and cease to place things in opposition to one another. We need to learn to live with paradoxes and contradictions, to accept that “absurdity and tragedy” are part of God’s unfathomable agenda.
Maybe because my understanding of St Francis until now has been what Rohr calls the “birdbath” version, and because I have never read Rohr before, I did find the ideas he treats here difficult to grasp at first, but, as I read on, they became clearer and produced a surprising sense of calm within me. It is a book that offers ideas to ponder, such as: “The greatest enemy of ordinary daily goodness and joy is not imperfection, but the demand for some supposed perfection.”
Anyone familiar with Rohr’s innovative theology will recognise how this is firmly grounded in the teaching of St Francis and anyone who has not encountered Rohr before will, I am sure, be intrigued by what he has to say even if it takes time for this to become clear.
Patricia Brewerton is an elder, serving at Lumen United Reformed Church in London
A closer look at Common Prayer
The United Reformed Church is partly responsible for the publication of this fascinating series of “outsiders” views of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). In the 2012 Prayer Handbook, Susan Durber acknowledged the importance of a tradition of “common prayer,” using 10 phrases from the BCP to mark its 350th anniversary. That inspired the Anglican liturgist James Steven to convene an ecumenical symposium about the influence of the BCP, and to publish the papers.
In a typically elegant and generous paper, Susan Durber explores the ways in which the spectre of the prayer book as a tool of state oppression still clouds the URC tradition’s perception of it as also a treasury of devotion. Chris Ellis takes the opportunity to contrast the traditions of text and orality in public prayer, developing a dialogue between the BCP and Bunyan. Norman Wallwork gives a close textual reading of the influence of the BCP on the development of Methodist liturgies. The Orthodox scholar David Frost (himself once an Anglican liturgist) presents, from the sunnier climes of Othodoxy’s theological anthropology, a delightfully provocative and personal theological critique of the BCP’s obdurate Calvinism, and Alan Griffiths speaks movingly of the imprint of Cranmer’s lovingly crafted cadences on his Catholic devotional life. Two “insiders” complete the line-up: Bishop Colin Buchanan casts an expert eye on the influence of the BCP across the Anglican Communion in a lively essay which shows just how contextual its adoption was in different cultures, and in an afterword, Bridget Nichols reflects on the relationship between the BCP and the identity of Anglicanism.
Liturgical studies are not high on the agenda in our universities or theological colleges. This slim volume shows how short-sighted that is, for, the ways in which we worship, the words we use, the books we might hold or eschew, mould our discipleship, shape our theologies and influence our ecclesiologies more than a little. What this book offers is not just good scholarship, but an oblique and unusual view of our ecumenical relationships.
David Cornick is general secretary for Churches Together in England
Victorian Britain’s sex trade scandal
The Armstrong Girl was launched by the Salvation Army as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations this year. Cathy Le Feuvre, former head of media at the organisation, gives a riveting account of a series of events which scandalised Victorian Britain.
In order to expose the sex trade in young girls – which many people at the time preferred to ignore – WT Stead, sensationalist pioneer of investigative journalism, collaborated with Josephine Butler and the Booths to show how a 13-year-old girl (Eliza Armstrong) could be bought from her parents for £5 and taken to the continent. The lurid details that were spelt out in a series of articles in The Pall Mall Gazette struck a chord with the public, whose outraged response led directly to raising of the age of consent by parliament. But the plot backfired, and in 1885, Stead and Rebecca Jarrett, a reformed brothel keeper, with Louise Mourey, a midwife, were convicted at the Old Bailey of charges associated with abducting Eliza. While they received prison sentences of three to six months, Bramwell Booth, second-in-command of the Salvation Army, was acquitted.
This book works at different levels. Le Feuvre uses her sources well, skilfully interweaving verbatim testimonies with evidence from newspaper articles, memoirs and letters, to highlight the social context and moral attitudes of the time. Le Feuvre’s account of the chief personalities is nuanced; she is a skilled journalist with an eye for detail. Particularly memorable is her description of the petition to raise the age of consent, two and a half miles long, being driven through the streets of London in a horse-drawn vehicle, escorted by the Salvation Army band and a procession of cadets.
This is more than a piece of social history or a compelling cautionary tale. It has a grim resonance with the experience today of those who work with the child victims of human trafficking. As in Victorian Britain, modern slavery in the UK is connected with extreme poverty and the power of transnational organised crime. Le Feuvre’s gripping account is a sober reminder that this is no time for complacency.
Fleur Houston is a retired church minister living in Cheshire
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Reform.