Reviews – February 2016
A tale of many walls
Belfast: Toward a city without walls
£15 ISBN: 9781780730721
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 but one UK city – Belfast – has almost 100 walls of separation today, despite the supposed end of conflict in 1998. In this book, illustrated throughout by stark images of the walls, Vicky Cosstick traces their history, telling stories of those affected by them and those who are trying to remove them.
The walls first appeared in 1969 as a desperate measure to reduce communal violence. One bisects the street where, as a child, I took part in family visits to an older relative. More recently (2007), another has gone up a little more than a mile from where I lived in the 1960s and 1970s. The most recent wall was erected in 2013, to protect a Roman Catholic church from frequent attack.
The stories Cosstick tells are often deeply depressing, though not without hope that careful relationship building and continuing conversations might improve things. Progress is frequently of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back variety. Lining up local support, political direction and economic resources together is not straightforward, and each of these areas is also itself complex.
Despite huge social, political and economic investment, a combination of circumstances conspire to keep Belfast’s walls in place; these include traumatic memories of local people (a third of victims of political violence between 1969 and 2004 died with within 250 metres of one of these walls), a political settlement that cements current divisions in place and even hard currency (a quarter of Belfast’s 1.7 million [annual figure] tourists visit these walls.)
If Jesus is present, breaking down divisions and these walls, then you are more likely to find him working through secular community workers than through Belfast’s churches. Honourable exceptions aside, institutional Churches have steered clear of the issue and the associated communities. Churchgoing rates are very low there and independent congregations are the ones more likely to be engaged.
For those interested in the complex realities of tackling a major social problem, and how churches should respond to such a call, this book speaks eloquently both to and beyond this one difficult situation.
Trevor Jamison is Environmental Chaplain for Eco-Congregation Scotland
More than church architecture
The Angel Roofs of East Anglia:
Unseen masterpieces of the Middle Ages
£19.95 ISBN: 9780718893699
When this book arrived for review, I thought it one for church architecture anoraks. How wrong I was! This is a gem of a book. It offers us a glimpse of something very special and often, at least by me, barely noticed in the gloom way above our heads. As Michael Rimmer tells the story of roofs with obvious delight and tremendous attention to detail, something else is revealed; centuries are peeled away and the artistry and craftwork of a host of our ancient churches is revealed – a pre-Reformation glimpse of what was before much was removed and lost. For, we discover, roof after roof is populated with wooden angels, sometimes over 100 of them. The vast majority of angels that survive are in East Anglia. Sometimes the carving is crude. Many are exquisite – detailed sculptures richly painted floating high.
The story begins with Westminster Hall, now part of the Houses of Parliament, completed in 1398. I have now discovered, thanks to Rimmer, that it is the earliest surviving example of a hammer beam roof which enables great distances to be spanned without pillars. And it is the engineering of such roofs that creates spaces that become launching pads for angels. We are taken on a journey into architecture and artistry that carries us into history, economics and politics as the spread of these designs is charted in text and maps and diagrams.
Then come the glorious photographs. I imagine Rimmer endlessly lying in an aisle on his back with his camera. The photos are stunning, showing both the sweep of the timberwork and incredibly detailed close ups of the carvings. It certainly is a walk into the past. But it is also a journey into faith.
This book may not be for everyone. I may well be an anorak. But, if you want to discover something of an inheritance, something of how the visual and the spiritual can encourage each other, something of the wonder of faith and the skill of human hands dedicated to the glory of God, then read this book. Then take it with you, and go visit!
Neil Thorogood is the Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge
How to preach Good Friday
Into your hand: Confronting Good Friday
£7.99 ISBN: 9780334054139
It is always a joy to see something fresh from Walter Brueggemann; his writing never fails to reinvigorate my passion for Scripture. This book, somewhat unusually, is not primarily the Old Testament scholar at work but the preacher, sharing a series of Good Friday homilies which were preached at his home church on the seven “words” of Jesus from the Cross. Good Friday reflections are also woven into the text of Psalms – trust Brueggemann to breathe fresh life into these words! – so that Jesus’ context is firmly rooted in his Jewish history.
This book gives readers a number of other things to take seriously: first, we are challenged not to spiritualise the physical and mental reality of Jesus’ experience of the Cross (for example by calling the event an execution rather than a crucifixion, which has, Brueggemann suggests, become over-spiritualised). Secondly, Brueggemann consistently reminds us not to skip over Good Friday in our haste to get to Easter Sunday, encouraging the worshipper and reader to take suffering and death seriously. Brueggemann asks, for example, whether a three-hour meditative service is long enough for us to make space for truly experiencing the aloneness of Jesus on the Cross. The other focus of these reflections is seeing Jesus’ death as the ultimate challenge to empire – yes, Rome, but also all that rules over us today.
Don’t turn the pages of the foreword too quickly, where Richard Rohr’s comment seems to me to say it all: speaking of the healing power of “contact with Reality”, Rohr says: “That is exactly where this magnificent little book will lead you.” I couldn’t agree more!
I was particularly moved by the homily on “Father, forgive …”, which points us to the realisation that Jesus is not the one forgiving, rather he is handing forgiveness over to the Creator of heaven and earth, whose forgiveness is, quite literally, world-changing.
Read it slowly, re-read it carefully, meditate through Lent, allow this to shape your own church’s Good Friday worship and reflection; it is a well to drink deep from.
Rosalind Selby is Principal of and a New Testament tutor for Northern College, Manchester
BOOKS IN BRIEF
Encounters with Mental Distress: Quaker stories
Quaker Life Network
Quaker Books, £5
Encounters with Mental Distress is a remarkable collection of anonymous first person accounts by people (mostly Quakers) of their experience of mental illness/disability and how they related to, and were received by, a local Quaker meeting. There are also just a few accounts by representatives of local meetings on the experience from their point of view. This groundbreaking little book was developed by the Mental Health in Meetings Cluster of the Quaker Life Network. Churches have much to learn from it.
Clapham Dissenters: From persecuted group to
Ivor Thomas Rees
Y Lolfa, £9.95
This book is a carefully researched history of Clapham Congregational Church over the three centuries of its life. However, it is also the story of how a rural village became a wealthy London suburb. The book describes theological trends and tells of the powerful families who attended the church in its heyday.
The Quest for the Kingdom
Scooby Press, £7.50
Edmund Banyard, who is a United Reformed Church minister and former moderator of the URC’s General Assembly, has produced another book – in his 90s! This one is a collection of his poetic meditations on the life of faith. Early sections are ten years old, the rest are the fruit of the years since. Banyard’s two sons have, in practical terms, brought the book to birth.
To order this book, please make out a cheque for £7.50 (this price includes postage and packaging) made payable to “P Banyard” and send that cheque to the publisher’s address below:
23 Shirley Road
Daniel Hughes: The sledgehammer pastor
Ivor Thomas Rees
Y Lolfa, £9.95
The author of this book, a retired URC minister, brings to life a surprisingly little-known maverick whose life was filled with challenge and controversy. His story is part of the history of new political and theological ideas in 20th-century Welsh life. The biography throws interesting light on the great changes in south Wales before and after the First World War, particularly the effect of the transition from Liberal to Labour politics in the chapels.
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Reform.