Reviews – December 2018/January 2019
Angels against austerity
It’s a Wonderful Life
Directed by Frank Capra
Certificate U, 131 minutes
Re-released in December
Following the banking system bailout and the rise of Trump, this 1946 black-and-white classic – back in cinemas and restored to ultra high definition (4K) – packs a renewed punch. The avaricious financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore) owns everything in the small, US town of Bedford Falls except the Bailey Bros Building and Loan Association run by George Bailey (James Stewart) which ensures that ordinary people can borrow enough money to buy themselves decent, affordable homes – rather than pay Potter’s extortionate market rents.
This quintessentially good man marries his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) and helps other people to the detriment of his own career and his family’s income. When one Christmas, a trusted employee misplaces $8,000 (because Potter stole it from him) and the association looks likely to close, George contemplates suicide. Not a praying man, he asks God for deliverance and an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) stops him throwing himself off a bridge, then shows him how things would have been had George never been born.
In this scenario, George didn’t stop his brother Harry drowning aged nine, so Harry didn’t prevent men drowning in a ship during the war. No one kept the association going and the rebranded town of Pottersville is awash with bars, dance halls and heavy policing. His beloved Mary is an old maid who threatens to arrest him for stalking. George comes to appreciate the considerable contribution he has made to many people’s lives on both personal and wider social levels.
Bookended by a church bell ringing, the narrative opens with voices praying earnestly for George, who is in trouble. God, church and community very much underscore this vision of compassion for one’s fellow human beings, and the idea that one person can make a huge difference. This is a welcome antidote to contemporary idols of austerity, self-interest and greed. James Stewart personifies an honest US everyman whose heart and actions demonstrate genuine concern for the lives he touches. The angel may be a little corny and the film very much of its time, but there are deep spiritual truths here too. Merry Christmas!
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic
Rich prayer anthology
Praying the Way: With Matthew Mark, Luke and John
Bible Reading Fellowship
Terry Hinks has thought and written over many years about ways in which the gospels can inspire and shape our praying. His long ministry, across four United Reformed Church pastorates, has certainly deepened and developed this work, and now he has provided us with a rich collection of mature prayers, drawing on important texts from across the four gospels and around the themes of the Christian year.
Praying the Way contains 160 prayers in all – 40 based on passages in each of the gospels. Most of them are short – between about 100 and 150 words in length – and, while Hinks has a recognisable mood and approach, there is definitely no single pattern of length, rhythm or style. The primary tone is reflective, drawing near to God in measured, thoughtful praise, with deep confidence and hope, yet often with searching humility too. The language is both reverent and accessible, often moving, never complex.
The prayers in Praying the Way would work well in church worship and could be equally helpful in a house group or for private use. They would connect most deeply with Christians who were reasonably familiar with the biblical material, and who were glad to have their thoughts taken to new places in their praying. Worship leaders will welcome the book, not least because the prayers relate so directly and obviously to scripture passages, many of which appear in the Revised Common Lectionary used in Sunday services.
A few sample snippets from the book will show the counterpoint of freshness and familiarity. The prayer based on Matthew 18:12-13 talks of ‘sheep, ready to be counted, not to send us to sleep, but to waken us to your kingdom’. The one on Mark 2:1-12 says: ‘Let us praise God for friends who carry us through the darkest of times’. The prayer for Luke 15:8-10 asks: ‘Holy Spirit, sweep through the dust of my life’.
This book deserves to be widely known and well used, and many copies will surely become well-worn in the course of the years. This is a resource to return to, time and again, for one’s own faith and in the service of others.
John Proctor is General Secretary of the United Reformed Church
Pilgrimage of Faith: Introducing the World
Council of Churches
Donald W Norwood
World Council of Churches
This book is written by Donald Norwood, an ecumenically committed United Reformed Church minister, now retired. Written to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, it is helpfully called Pilgrimage of Faith, as it traces the journey that the WCC has been on since its inception. The author has chosen to structure the book around the work of the WCC’s Assemblies. The Assembly takes place every seven years and travels from one continent to another, exploring a range of issues affecting Churches internationally, as well as issues that are encountered locally in the various contexts in which the Assembly meets. Each of the book’s ten chapters focuses on one of the Assemblies and the themes that were taken up by that Assembly.
The Assembly themes indicate the changing nature of the issues before the Church. The first Assembly, in Amsterdam, took as its theme ‘Man’s Disorder and God’s Design’. By the 1975 Assembly in Nairobi, Norwood points to the increasing focus on the role of women and how the understanding of the Church’s community of women and men has developed. The Nairobi Assembly also highlighted racism as one of many social concerns.
The book also points to the changing nature of ecumenical engagement – especially at the 1968 Uppsala Assembly, which looked at relationships with the Roman Catholic Church – and highlights the time and method required in order for ecumenical dialogue to take place. Pilgrimage of Faith is simply and informatively written. There is a good selection of photos in the middle. It provides a helpful introduction to the work of the WCC and an interesting overview of issues that have been raised over the decades. It would be interesting to see a further work which dug more deeply into the way the themes of the Assemblies were taken up by the WCC’s member Churches, and the issue of its theological diversity.
Pilgrimage of Faith will appeal to people who are interested in the Church’s wider international ecumenical scene. It will also appeal to those interested in the WCC’s significant and influential work, over the last 70 years, in the areas of justice and of unity.
Elizabeth Welch is Minister of Clapton Park United Reformed Church in Hackney, London
Homophobia in church
Just Love: A journey of self-acceptance
Darton, Longman and Todd
This book is the testimony of a Church of England campaigner against homophobia. Jayne Ozanne tells how she learned to be openly gay while remaining true to her evangelical faith.
Ozanne has spent 20 years of her adult life exploring the discovery, made when she contemplated suicide, that God’s word, for her, is ‘just love’. Writing from within that evangelical part of the Church of England she knows best, she charts the well-intentioned yet harmful attempts of those who colluded with her long denial of her true sexual identity.
Ozanne has not had an easy life, though she has been blessed with a good brain, a dynamic personality and a CV full of high-flying roles and big-name colleagues. During her first job, promoting a top washing up liquid, Ozanne was raped by a male priest friend. She internalised the pain and tried to wash away the memory, suffering depression as a result.
Occasionally, Ozanne talked about her sexuality but rarely met a good response. Evangelical friends offered her extra ‘prayer cover’, prescribed ‘spiritual deliverance’ that caused greater trauma or just could not listen. After suffering a mental breakdown in 1997, she confided in a psychiatrist who responded: ‘I think you should change your religion.’ Ozanne said: ‘I didn’t know many liberals.’
Pastorally aware, liberally-minded listeners are the quiet heroes of this book. They responded to Ozanne on her terms, reminded her of God’s love, and renewed her hope. An Oxford college chaplain and Anglo-Catholic was one of the first to build a real dialogue with Ozanne. The Revd James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool and Ozanne’s former colleague on the Archbishops’ Council, encouraged Ozanne to go public, once she was confident in her gay identity. A few evangelical colleagues responded sensitively. Others have remained silent.
The book is partly billed as a chronicle of Ozanne’s work with the former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad. In reality, it is far more about one woman’s journey to claim her sexual identity before God. I wouldn’t dare to say: ‘Nobody in the United Reformed Church has this sort of struggle to come out as gay.’ That would be arrogant and very probably quite untrue.
Kirsty Thorpe is Minister of Wilmslow United Reformed Church, Cheshire
Find yourself in Lent
The Merciful Humility of God
This is a Lent book, ready for 2019. There are five main sections, each providing material for reflection, for either a meeting or on your own, during Lent. Each has reflection on a key theme, a story of a person from the Christian tradition, a Bible passage and some questions to dwell on. The stories (of Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Francis, Theresa of Avila and Jean Vanier) truly enliven each section.
Most church groups would find this book very helpful. It takes the reader to deep parts of themselves and the faith. The book is written in a way that sounds deep notes with a deft touch. It reveals how faith can be both learned and resolutely down to earth. Jane Williams testifies to a faith that is thoroughly orthodox but also (and why not?) intensely connected with the realities of our daily lives. We have the sense that we are being guided by someone who knows how life is, and how Christian faith can transform it.
There is an overall theological emphasis, a kind of dominant tune, that finds its way into each chapter. Williams writes of the God who, in every part of the story of Jesus, is revealed in ‘merciful humility’. Whether at his baptism, in his meeting with people or at the cross itself, Jesus reveals what is always true about God – that love is being given away without price. Jesus is, as says, God present with us ‘at every turn of the road’. This is the God who is not at home with the powerful or the elite but with those who are of little account.
Williams’ language is so clear, but like a poet, she uses words to open things we might not have seen before. ‘How to win friends and influence nobody’ is the title of one chapter – revealing her sense of the paradox of God’s ways with power. Lent is not primarily about ‘giving things up’ but finding ourselves as we travel closer to Jesus. This book, I have no doubt, could help many of us do just that.
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church, Somerset
These reviews were published in the December 2018 / January 2019 edition of Reform