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Reform Magazine | March 23, 2017

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Reviews – March 2017

Meet our radical forebears

The Leveller Revolution
John Rees
Verso
£25 (hardback)
ISBN: 9781784783884

 

Historians have long debated the significance of the Levellers’ contribution to the English revolution. In this meticulous, thoroughly researched book (it has grown out of the author’s PhD) John Rees offers a compelling and comprehensive study of the Levellers.

The movement grew out of radical separatism in London during the early 1640s, and, after reaching its apogee in 1647/1648, returned there, lending shape and flavour to English dissent and its political children. Yet it was more than that. Rees lays bare the remarkably sophisticated organisation of secret presses, well distributed and well supported petitions to parliament, and networks of people which helped shape the political possibilities of the revolution. He shows the overlap between the Levellers and the army, and concludes that they lent an impetus to the revolution which might not have happened without them. The sadness is that shocked pragmatism ruled after the execution of Charles I and the constitutional subtlety of the Levellers’ Agreement of the People was ignored. What Rees helps us see clearly is the depth of Leveller organisation, and its intimate relationship to the radical religious underground.

But this book is far more than just that argument. It manifests such a passion and love for the radicals of the 17th century that it reads more like a novel than a history book. Primary sources are deployed so well that we can hear the voices of a cast which Shakespeare would have died for: the hero John Lilburne, brought to trial by the old regime and Cromwell alike; the redoubtable Baptist theologian and pamphleteer Kathleen Chidley; Henry Marten, the patrician revolutionary; to say nothing of the crowd of apprentices and the campaigning Leveller women who asked Cromwell and his fellow MPs: ‘… have we not an equal interest in the Kingdome with the men of this nation in …liberties and securities?’ We can smell the streets, feel the warmth of the taverns, the intimacy of the meeting houses.

If you want to understand from the inside the radicalism that once was our tradition, read this remarkable book.

David Cornick is General Secretary for Churches Together in England

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Christian Aid in Wales

Beginnings: Christian Aid Cymru: The story
of a pioneering generation
Dewi Lloyd Lewis
Tom Defis, Cymorth Cristnogol (Christian Aid)
£7.95
ISBN: 9780992988715

 

This is the story of Christian Aid through the lens of Wales’ experience. Against the backdrop of the UN Freedom from Hunger campaign, Inter Church Aid, Biafra and the wider work of Christian Aid, it documents the way in which the organisation took root and blossomed in Wales. It is a public recognition of the contribution of many people, places and churches to Christian Aid’s work from 1957 to 1972.

The book is also, in parts, an autobiographical story. Dewi Lloyd Lewis was the first member of Christian Aid’s staff in Wales, with responsibility for nurturing and coordinating work there. Work and home life were very much intertwined. The first Christian Aid office was within his family home, with Dewi’s wife Fiona providing office administration. The enormity of the task and the passion with which it was embraced meant this became more a way of life than a job.

One strand of the story, and of Dewi’s personal mission, was the internal campaign for Welsh language resources, including Christian Aid Week materials, and for a measure of autonomy in the ordering of Christian Aid’s affairs in Wales. In time, the case was made for additional staff to work in Wales. Thanks to the tenacity and vision of this faithful pioneer, Christian Aid is today one of the UK charities that has most successfully developed an authentic Welsh ethos and this has earned it well-deserved credibility and respect.

The year 2016 saw the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, where the collapse of a spoil tip led to more than 140 deaths in the mining village. The tragedy is recalled in one brief chapter of this book, detailing the role of Christian Aid in coordinating pastoral support for those affected. The same year saw widespread famine in five Indian states. The point is powerfully made that human suffering and hardship are not confined by geography, and that our response should be the same wherever it occurs.

Beginnings tells a tale of which Welsh and English readers alike can be proud – of mobilising community response for the relief of poverty and global justice. It is a story that has not ended yet.

Dr Fiona Liddell is Volunteering Development Manager for the Wales Council for Voluntary Action

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Fresh perspective on Christ’s victory

The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking
the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion
Tom Wright
SPCK
£19.99 (hardback)
ISBN: 9780281061457

 

Tom Wright has written prolifically for decades, generally on the New Testament, in weighty academic tomes for specialists, and in lively little commentaries ‘for everyone’. This latest book has a mezzanine quality. It slides between the two levels. It lacks the intense engagement with everybody else’s work that is typical of university writing, yet it builds up a cumulative and steady argument very different from the short chapters and accessible anecdotes of the commentary series. The style is lively, as Wright always is, but the case he makes is quite complex.

The ‘day the revolution began’ was Good Friday. Jesus’ crucifixion changed history. From then on, the world has been a different place, rich with new possibilities for fresh ways of living on the part of a people transformed. Drawing on the Gospels and New Testament epistles, Wright sets the cross of Christ in the context of history. The cross brings Israel’s long covenant with God to focus and fulfilment, and launches a movement of energy and wide potential. It releases the power of love to work against the ancient deities of Mammon, Aphrodite and Mars. No longer need the world live for wealth, sex and war.

Wright resists some of the more mechanical and contractual understandings of the cross that have been offered – ‘Jesus was punished so that I could go to heaven’. Yet he continues to reckon with sin and forgiveness, and with the cross as the place where God reckons with these. He portrays a ‘Victor Christ’ but uses the testimony of Scripture to make sense of this suffering victory within its own conceptual and cultural world.

This book might help you a lot if you’ve known and even preached the cross for years but are ready now to think it through afresh. Don’t wait until Maundy Thursday to start. These ideas will need time to mellow in your mind.

John Proctor is General Secretary of the United Reformed Church

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Reflections on Jesus’ actions

The Things He Did: The story of Holy Week
Stephen Cottrell
SPCK
£7.99
ISBN: 9780281076239

 

In the words of the author: ‘This book is about everything that happens in Holy Week up until the crucifixion. It finishes where many other Holy Week books start.’ This book is the third in a trilogy by Stephen Cottrell, who is Bishop of Chelmsford. His other two titles cover the events of Good Friday (The Things He Carried) and Easter (The Things He Said). The Things He Did gives priority to the actions of Jesus during the days before Good Friday, pointing out that even when Jesus does speak it is to reflect on his actions.

Cottrell is an excellent storyteller, bringing back to the reader’s memory Old Testament passages and corresponding New Testament references. He recounts Jesus’ ride on a colt into Jerusalem and his righteous rage in the temple. He vividly describes how Jesus ate with the wrong sort of people and allowed a woman to anoint him with oil; how he washed his disciples’ feet then broke bread and shared wine; how he prayed passionately in the garden and allowed himself to be arrested. With Stephen’s gift for storytelling, the scenes are brought to life in such a way that sometimes it is almost tangible. The reader is able see the sights, hear the sounds and feel the emotions of the occasion.

Yet, this is no comfortable retelling of familiar Holy Week events, it is also quite thought provoking and challenging. At times I felt like one of the 12 as they realised how often they had misread the plot! At the end of each chapter there are questions, firstly to help one to reflect on the retelling of the story, but then the reader is invited to read the passage of scripture and consider a number of questions related to that biblical account.

This seemingly small book is for everyone – as much for ministers as for lay people. It would be equally good for individual use and for small groups.

Ruth Mitchell is Minister of Billericay, Brentwood and Ingatestone United Reformed churches, Essex

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This article was published in the March 2017 edition of  Reform.

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