Reviews – March 2016
Paul through fresh eyes
Meeting God in Paul
I have not often found a book on theology to be a genuine page turner, difficult to put down. I received Rowan Williams’ little book just before Christmas, and until it was finished, Christmas was on the back burner.
Williams is a born teacher. He has that wonderful gift of being able to express complex and profound ideas in simple language comprehensible to most people. This book has three chapters: on Paul’s social world, his disturbing idea of universal welcome and his Christian universe. Each chapter deals with more thought-provoking material than the last; but, by the time I reached the third chapter, I was so thoroughly seduced by Professor Williams’ humour, deceptively simple explanations and clear, concise English that I found myself drawn in quite easily to the complexities of Paul’s thought.
Most eye-opening for me was the chapter on Paul’s social world, spelling out the full implications of his Roman citizenship. It was good to be reminded of the revolutionary social structure of the early Church, where different social classes rubbed together in a way found nowhere else at that time. In fact, “revolutionary” would be a good word to sum up not just the early Church, but also Paul’s understanding of the full implications of faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. There is something very exciting about raw revolutionary fervour, and Meeting God in Paul will make you sit up and see Paul afresh.
At the end of the book, Professor Williams gives us questions for reflection and discussion; he has also converted much of Acts and Paul’s letters into a Lenten study guide, with daily readings. I shall be using the guide this Lent, having found the whole book inspirational.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister based in Ilkeston, Derbyshire
Essays on hymns and carols
Cambridge Hymns and Carols: Town and gown
in liturgy and life
Edited by Gordon Giles, Martin Leckebusch and Ian Sharp
Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland
£6 (including postage and packaging)
This book is comprised of five essays on hymns and carols that have a connection with the University or City of Cambridge. In the first essay, Gordon Giles focuses on “Cambridge carols” and makes a persuasive argument that, through the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held at King’s College and the Carols for Choirs series of books, Cambridge editors and musicians such as David Willcocks and John Rutter have exerted an unparalleled influence on what we now take to be the tradition of Christmas carol singing.
David Thompson writes a series of short biographies of Cambridge hymnwriters from the 16th to 20th centuries and the hymns for which they are best known, including George Herbert (“King of glory, King of peace”), John Milton (“The Lord will come and not be slow”) and JM Neale (“Blessed city, heavenly Salem”). Christopher Idle contributes a series of short biographies about Cambridge men and women who have written, and continue to write, the words and music of hymns and carols we sing today.
Janet Wootton offers a substantial essay on “Puritan Hymnody and the influence of Cambridge University”. Complaining that many churches read or chanted the psalms “like the tossing of tennis balls”, the puritans promoted plain-meaning translations of the psalms into metrical verse set to singable tunes. Isaac Watts was pivotal in forging a bridge between increasingly free translations of the psalms and what today we would recognise as hymns. I was fascinated by one incident of spontaneous hymnsinging: Keir Hardie addressed an open-air meeting of working men at the Mansfield Settlement in Canning Town, outlining the things to be accomplished by the then new Labour Party, whereupon the vast body of men boomed out Ebenezer Elliott’s hymn “When wilt Thou save the people, O God of mercy, when!” (A hymn redolent with the psalmists’ cries to God to bring justice, unlike “The Red Flag”.)
This book may appeal to those with an interest in hymns, carols and those who wrote them. Giles’ and Wootton’s essays pursue a continuous theme; the others are mainly biographical surveys.
Julian Templeton is a church minister in Highgate and New Barnet, London
Spring for ecumenism
A Faithful Presence: Working together for the
Hilary Russell, Emeritus Professor of Urban Policy in Liverpool John Moores University, writes out of longstanding experience, about practical and theological issues facing the ecumenical movement in Britain. Her book responds realistically to the so-called “ecumenical winter” that has affected Christian cooperation since the heyday of post-war shared working. It analyses the factors that have brought churches to this point and examines the challenges facing Christians in an increasingly secular society. It also considers the opportunities that are still open for mutual collaboration.
In her analysis of the common good, Russell shows what churches can offer and the possibilities of cooperation with many other groups. There is an encouraging focus on the great variety of social projects which faith communities support, offered through snapshots from around the country. These snapshots are supported by extensive quotations from various sources, and a lengthy bibliography.
Lists of principles, such as those from the L’Arche community – servant leadership, partnership, subsidiarity, accountability, participation, inculturation and solidarity – provide an interesting starting point for reflection on shared working in a given locality, as do the list of questions raised in the last chapter. Running through the book is a theological commentary, looking at the way in which mission flows out of the life of God. The heart of life’s meaning is described as the “delight and longing of God”; the Church is described as being “an event before it is an institution”.
This book offers a positive analysis of the possibilities of shared working, pointing beyond the ecumenical winter to an ecumenical spring. It would be helpfully complemented by a further theological and sociological analysis of why the churches have shied away from further exploration of their common faith in the one God. Russell has provided a helpful study guide for reflection and action for Christians in local communities and those who seek to work together regionally or nationally.
Elizabeth Welch is Minister of Clapton Park United Reformed Church in Hackney, London
The man who ministered to Nazi criminals
Mission at Nuremberg
It is surprising that this story has not been told before and that the name of Henry Gerecke is not better known in Christian circles. Gerecke, an American Lutheran pastor, was the man to whom fell the task of serving as chaplain to the 21 Nazi leaders imprisoned and awaiting trial at Nuremberg in 1945 for crimes against humanity.
The story begins with Gerecke’s background working with the poor, the homeless and with prisoners during the years of the Great Depression, experience which served him well in preparation for ministry to the despised of a different kind altogether. From there, the book pursues Gerecke’s call to army chaplaincy, tending to wounded GIs in London and then to his most demanding role of all, ministering to the prisoners at Nuremberg. All the big names are there: Goering, Speer, Hess, Ribbentrop and the rest. It is a captivating journey. We follow Gerecke from his initial meetings with the prisoners, through the trial with the differing stances of the accused vis a vis their guilt and then, inevitably, ministry to those condemned to hang, with all the drama of the executions.
We also hear about Gerecke’s ministry to the families of some of those convicted. A host of vexing questions and issues arise along the way: how can one minister the Gospel to people capable of such crimes? Who has the right to forgive? Issues of discipline and the danger of “cheap grace” and, beyond these, wider and more profound issues of forgiveness, human and divine.
This is the story of a good Christian, Henry Gerecke, through whom the Gospel is pitted against the extremes of evil as they are embodied in human beings, some of whom are capable of contrition and others only of arrogant defiance. I could have done with a rather less detailed account of Gerecke’s early life and ministry, though it does help to present the profile of a man of exceptional integrity – a man with a passionate and single-minded devotion to the Gospel and its power for salvation to all.
Lance Stone is a minister of the English Reformed Church, Amsterdam
This article was published in the March 2016 edition of Reform.